Glenglassaugh Distillery stands about two miles west of Portsoy overlooking Sandend Bay on the north coast of Aberdeenshire. Just around the bay is the pretty village and harbour of Sandend. The distillery itself is accessed directly from the A98, from which it is clearly visible, occupying a slightly sunken site next to the stump of a disused windmill dating back to the early 1700s. Its Aberdeenshire location makes it, by just over two miles, a "Highland" distillery rather than a "Speyside" distillery.
The road into the distillery leads past a line of cottages once occupied by distillery workers, which concludes with the bungalow now used as the distillery office. Beyond is the bulk of a large warehouse complex and the road leads along the side of this to bring you to the visitor centre and its car park on your right.
Your first impression of Glenglassaugh Distillery is an intriguing one created by the intermingling of two totally separate generations of buildings which between them tell part, but perhaps not the most important part, of the story of the distillery. Most of the stone buildings date back to the distillery's beginnings from 1875, while the more modern structures date back to a major rebuild in 1959. But the most exciting part of the distillery's story only began in 2008 when it was purchased by an independent group of investors who restarted production for the first time in 22 years. In March 2013 the distillery was purchased by the BenRiach Distillery Company.
Glenglassaugh's product had historically been used almost exclusively as a component in blended whiskies. As a result, although some independent bottlings had taken place, and although the new owners purchased some stocks of pre-1986 whisky with the distillery, Glenglassaugh is in many ways more comparable with a "new start" distillery than one that has simply returned to production. The new owners set out with the aim of producing the very best whisky it was possible to produce. Having purchased the distillery they then invested a considerable amount in refurbishing and/or replacing the production equipment; and went on to recruit a highly experienced team from across the industry to start the spirit flowing once again.
Glenglassaugh Distillery was officially reopened on 25 November 2008 by Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister. The first spirit emerged from the stills on 4 December 2008, legally only becoming whisky three years later. In the meantime the company helped fill the cashflow gap faced by every new start distillery by selling "new spirit" under the brand "The Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak Its Name".
All this gives Glenglassaugh a real buzz that can be sensed as you tour the distillery. At present the process begins on site with the arrival of malted barley, though this may change. The original floor maltings from 1870s are still standing, apparently untouched since they were last used (and complete with a sign indicating the "withering floor"): and the owners are keeping open the future option of bringing them back into use.
All the distillery's main production stages are housed in a large building dating back to 1959 in the centre of the site. Visitors to distilleries are used to seeing malt mills made by Porteus, and there is one here, in the traditional shade of red. Much more unusual, however, is the way that Porteus played a central role in the reconstruction of the distillery in 1959, and their maker's plaques can also be seen on the malt bins and on the mash tun. There is a strong sense in which much of the 1959 production building was simply a shell built to Porteus's specifications to enclose their machinery. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The washbacks at Glenglassaugh stand taller than usual above the floor of the room, and all have been here since before the distillery was mothballed in 1986. If a washback ever completely dries out it is impossible to return it to use. Those at Glenglassaugh survived because of the dedication of a member of the warehousing and maintenance team who, every month for over two decades, drained the washbacks and refilled them with fresh water.
The still room at Glenglassaugh is home to two large stills. These also date back to the rebuilding of the distillery in 1959. When the distillery was purchased in 2008 the stills had oxidised badly, and you can still see the surface finish left when the oxidation was ground away. When the new owners took over they discovered that, unusually, the spirit still was larger than the wash still, and that the wash still was not large enough to accommodate half the wash from a washback. Swapping the duties of the spirit and wash stills remedied matters and harmonised the production flow, and it is difficult not to be drawn to the conclusion that for the whole period from 1959 to 1986 the distillery was operating with its stills in the wrong order. An interesting by-product of the 2008 swap is the presence of windows, normally found only in the wash still, in the necks of both stills.
Warehousing capacity at Glenglassaugh far exceeds the distillery's current needs, and much of it is rented out to other distillers. The site is home both to traditional dunnage warehouses dating back to the 1870s and to racked warehouses from 1959, and it is interesting to be able to compare the two on a single site. Call us traditionalists, but for us nothing beats the atmosphere and unmistakable aroma of barrels stacked on an earth floor in a dunnage warehouse. An unusual feature of Glenglassaugh is a small bottling and packing line: add in floor maltings at the start and this would be one of the most comprehensive single site production processes in the industry.
We've touched on the story of Glenglassaugh a number of times already. The distillery was founded by James Moir in 1875. It subsequently passed to two of his nephews, but was sold to Highland Distilleries Company in 1892. They closed the distillery in 1907, and although there are unconfirmed reports of a revival from 1931 to 1936, it is most likely that the distillery remained silent for over half a century. In 1959 a new distillery building was built on the site, and production restarted the following year.
Glenglassaugh Distillery remained in production until 1986, when it was mothballed. What (eventually) happened next is recorded above. It is remarkable to consider that (assuming the distillery did remain silent during the 1930s) until 2008 the distillery had only been producing whisky for 58 of the 133 years since it was first established.